An adaptation of the best-selling children’s book by John Bellairs, this mouthful of a title also sounds like one of the ’70s Italian giallo thrillers much loved by horror specialist Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno), who’s a curious choice indeed to helm this family-friendly fantasy. 

It’s also the kind of film that Tim Burton would have taken on before he lost his mojo. Fortunately Roth proves to be a good fit, working from a screenplay by Eric Kripke (creator of TV’s Supernatural). The pair’s complementary credentials in the macabre, as well as some canny casting, elevates this slight but entertaining tale of magic, witchcraft and wizardry, set in 1955.

When orphaned youngster Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vacarro) is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black, less irritating than usual) in the eponymous house, he quickly discovers his guardian is a warlock, who offers to instruct him the art of magic, together with the neighbourhood witch, Mrs. Zimmerman (the always wonderful Cate Blanchett).

Lewis soon discovers that the house was once owned by a sorcerer called Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), who has installed a doomsday device within the wall – and the clock is ticking…

The House With a Clock in its Walls

Being an Amblin co-production, there’s a small town ambience at play that recalls Gremlins, while the production design is top notch in capturing period detail and the kind of clockwork mechanisms that would make Guillermo del Toro drool. And the cast have great chemistry, with Blanchett the standout – not easy when you’re working alongside Jack Black!          

The film takes on a darker tone in its second half, but the more scarier moments are offset by the kind of goofiness only kids can love, including an anthropomorphic armchair, a patch of snapping Halloween pumpkins, and a topiary griffin that poops leaves.

The House with a Clock in its Walls could be called Harry Potter-lite, but a better comparison would be the underrated The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008). It’s a nicely balanced mix of magic, mirth and malevolence that will appeal to both children and parents.   

In cinemas: September 20, 2018
Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vacarro
Directed by: Eli Roth